STARring Uday Shankar: Failures are huge assets but success can be a big liability

As Uday Shankar, Chairman and CEO at Star India completes a decade at the helm, he reflects on his journey that had him take bold calls, bet big on the power of digital and sports, leverage the power of media for social good and challenge the status-quo to build India’s largest entertainment media company

e4m by Simran Sabherwal
Published: Jul 4, 2017 8:29 AM  | 18 min read

Walking into the 37th floor office of Uday Shankar, Chairman and CEO at Star India, one is struck by the clear 360-degree panoramic view of the business district of Lower Parel and beyond. For the man at the helm of the ship, it was Shankar’s clear-eyed decision-making and judgment that resulted in the company being infused with innovative ideas. Since taking over in 2007 Shankar has steered Star India to pole position as the largest television broadcaster in India. The meteoric rise of Star India can be attributed to Shankar’s acumen and risk-taking ability – be it radically changing the programming right after he took over to bring in refreshed and progressive content, expanding aggressively in the regional space, betting big on sports with huge investments, buying media rights for BCCI and ICC matches, setting the agenda for social change with programmes such as Satyamev Jayate or the ‘Nayi Soch’ positioning, technological innovations like Hotstar and acquiring digital rights for the IPL, re-introducing India to Kabaddi as a television sport and creating and investing in various sporting leagues. Most of the well-thought out gambles of Shankar have paid off, and cemented his position as one of the most influential persons in the Indian Media & Entertainment space, even as he continues to innovate and disrupt. Meanwhile, the bosses at 21st Century Fox, which owns Star India Pvt. Ltd, bet big on Uday Shankar and say the company is well on track to achieving its target of earning $500 million in 2018 and $1 billion by 2020, riding on its regional and sports content.

Here are edited excerpts from a conversation with Simran Sabherwal, where Shankar reflects on his journey so far, converting challenges into opportunities, the state of Indian news and more...

Reminiscing On The Journey So far

Looking back, life has been great. My generation aspired to be journalists for the good of society, to drive a change and impact things that felt wrong and needed intervention.  A political journalist, an environmental journalist, a television journalist - I did it all.  Without sounding pompous, I claim to have done valuable work to make a positive impact on society, while enriching myself and having great fun.  My biggest satisfaction is that after almost 30 years in media, I still remain as excited today as I was in my first year.

An Outsider’s Perspective

On joining Star India, I was a rank outsider, having no idea of entertainment, not even a consumer of entertainment, and didn’t even watch soaps.  I just watched news, some sports and movies.  Star was India’s biggest entertainment company, and though initially intimidated, in retrospect I think this was advantageous.  I was often afraid and unsure whether I was doing (things) right or not. However, this made me thoughtful and inquisitive. I asked questions, talked to people and tried to understand what was happening, why it was happening, and if it was the right thing to do.  Understanding led to change and unwillingness to accept the status quo. My journalistic background proved immensely helpful in giving me an outsider’s perspective.  A journalist’s strength is being an outsider, having a critical view, not accepting the status quo, and not seeing things as others do. Skills I learnt as a journalist benefited me - questioning, understanding why something is happening the way it is and how to make it better, because a journalist assumes that things are never as good or as bad as they look.

Getting the Top Job at Star India

I met many people from the company (then called News Corp) including the then global President and CEO, Peter Chernin.  I was part of Star then as editor and CEO at Star News, but had no idea that I was being considered to head Star India, as I was in a very different space. When the job was offered, my first thought was, ‘What is wrong with them, why are they offering it to me?’ I thought about it and felt it would be an amazing challenge. The job was offered to me in Hong Kong.  I called my family, but my wife thought that Star was too complex, the difficulties many. We were based in Delhi then, and she said, “Why do we want all this in our lives?” She said forget it, say thanks but no.  My daughter thought I should not pass the biggest job in media.  If it didn’t work, I would still have had some fun. I was excited to do something totally different.  A journalist seeks novelty and adventure, and this job provided both, which is what it has been and the reason I am here for 10 years. Every few years Star gives me the opportunity to do something totally different, bold and ambitious. To quote Star Trek: The Next Generation, “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Challenges Are Exceptional Opportunities

I don’t see challenges as challenges but as exceptional opportunities. We have taken advantages of those challenges and been able to transform Star India into India’s biggest content company, with deep emotional relations with the people of this country, which is a matter of pride for us.  When I took over, the leadership had changed as many senior people had moved to pursue their own ambitions. Star India was a very successful company, and the first challenge was to ensure that the success trajectory was maintained. It forced us to think differently. One of the things I had to take a call on was the successful Balaji shows and Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). We took a bold call and let go of the KBC rights and also discontinued the Balaji shows. We revamped Star Plus in content, brand positioning and perception. Star was very successful in Hindi entertainment, but today Star is the biggest media company by volume of content, viewers across multiple languages and markets. Star was late entering the regional business. Our competitors had got a head start, and the challenge was to catch up, change the game and get ahead, and we managed to do that. The conventional wisdom was that India was a one sport country. We questioned that perception, went against the tide and got into sports. Along with cricket, we created a great portfolio of sports and leagues like Pro Kabaddi League, The Indian Super League, Premier Badminton League, Hockey India League. Earlier you could only see cricket and international sports in this country. Today, the Kabaddi league has become big, and we just expanded the Kabaddi franchise with four new teams, with India’s top corporates participating, with more demand than we could cater to.

Building The Business Before Getting Excited About Monetisation

I don’t chase sponsorship, revenue, advertising, distribution income. Those are outputs of what you do. Fundamentally we are in the business of establishing deep relationships with our viewers. You build this relationship through drama, movies and even sports. Maybe it is because of my background and training that I don’t chase money. I follow content, viewers and their aspirations, and how my channels and business can mirror those aspirations. When that happens, people come to you, advertisers and money follows.

When we launched the Pro Kabaddi League, I called a few corporate friends and asked them to take the kabaddi sponsorship for a fraction of the value, but they didn’t think it made any commercial sense. Now we have sold the latest sponsorship of Kabaddi for a sum second only to the Indian Premier League (IPL sponsorship). It happened because we at Star have been very patient with our investments in sports and are still investing aggressively. We knew we needed to invest and build for a while before deciding it was profitable or not. The amazing thing about this company, the global principle, 21st Century Fox, and the Murdochs, is they believe in building content and the business before getting excited about monetisation. Many in this industry create a business and then panic about when and how to monetise. It’s like wondering at birth if the child will get into IIT or IIM. That’s not the way to do it. You raise the child, educate the child, and the child will do well. That’s our approach to building businesses. We are a commercial organization and have to make money, but we are not in a hurry to do it.

The other challenge comes from our aspirations, ambition and desire to do good for the company and the country, which is what we focus on. We are very excited about what we have created in Digital. Five years ago when we thought about Digital, no one was thinking about it. Many companies that bid for the broadcast rights of sporting properties did not bid for the digital rights. In 2012, when we ventured into sports, we bid for the BCCI rights and also the digital rights, though we didn’t have a platform to use it.  India was not ready for video as broadband was a problem.  There was no Wi-Fi and not many smart phones in the country then. We decided to work to become part of the change process. India has proved everyone wrong, and the recent Mary Meeker Internet trends 2017 report says that Hotstar was the 8th most downloaded app in the world last year. We continue to invest in Hotstar, with an ambition to create a globally successful digital platform.

In Hindsight

I often question things I did 10 years ago, wondering if I did them right. Being a self-taught man, if I didn’t question myself and the wisdom of what I do, I wouldn’t be able to learn. You do something on the basis of inputs, options and compulsions at the time. I have often wondered if I should have given up the rights of KBC.  I feel it was right, because it forced us to look for new content, and we were able to change things and do different kind of things.

Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain’ was my first big launch in Star, and it was a big failure.  I keep wondering what I could have done differently. I learnt a lot, the company learnt a lot, and we are better off today. Doing things differently is also about things that have worked out well, something as successful as Satyamev Jayate. So, it’s good to question yourself and analyse, even if you can do nothing about it.

I worry more when we have a success

As the leader of the organisation, I am more concerned when something is very successful. Success makes you complacent, so if an organisation has had many successes, that’s when they should be concerned. If something is successful today, there is no guarantee it will continue to deliver tomorrow. When something is not successful, the entire organisation comes together to examine what went wrong and learn from it. Failures are huge assets but success can be a big liability.

The Evolution of the M&E Industry Over the Last Decade

The industry has changed but probably not enough. When I took over Star India, internet video was still not a phenomena, YouTube was in its infancy. Even media companies didn’t have a website, and there was no digital distribution of content.  DTH had just arrived and was still very small. Cable was almost entirely analogue, HD had not been introduced in this country. Much has changed in the last decade just in television, but I think many things could and should change a great deal more. Today, everything is being disrupted by technology and science, with disruption playing out more aggressively in media and entertainment, but we haven’t progressed enough to embrace those changes. The old world mindset of doing things is the same, whether in content, distribution or ad sales. Media is a business where technology is still marginally and peripherally employed. Though a lot of things have changed, they haven’t changed enough in many areas.

The Way Ahead

Content is getting better, not just in production but in ideas as well. Quality of overall package and viewing experience will get even better. It’s ironical that though so much content is available, people still complain about not enough good content to watch. It is an opportunity and challenge for professional media companies to make their content conspicuous amidst so much volume. I don’t think we are using technology enough. Media was always geographically defined. Even in India content was created for a certain market and distributed to the cable operator in that area, and going beyond that area was neither possible nor desirable. Today, a person sitting in a small town of India can create content and distribute it globally to reach every single home and every single person’s device. Competition is becoming global. Earlier only Indian companies created content in Indian languages. Today, American companies like Amazon and Netflix are creating content for India. I’m sure soon even a Chinese company will create content. In India we can also create content and start selling content globally. Distribution, which was extremely local, has gone global. Content needs to operate at both levels - compete with global and local content, and also go global because of market opportunities. That is the challenge.

It’s the challenge of vision and leadership that concerns me. Media and the entertainment sector are still locked in old legacy and mindsets, though the industry has moved ahead. For Star, the competitor is not another Indian media or entertainment company, but global players. Amazon is not a media company, but is competing with media companies around the world. Google, Netflix and Facebook didn’t start out as media companies, but they have more media and have become media companies. The traditional verticals and geographical barriers have collapsed. Hence, leadership, vision and talent in India needs to transform itself to create a business that’s future ready. I’m not sure if media owners and leaders here are thinking about this problem. It is not distant on the horizon, but it’s here and now.

Look what’s happening to news as a category. Nobody goes to news channels or newspapers for breaking news now, as it comes to you on your handset 24x7. Often, breaking news is not from news channels or newspapers, but from Facebook, Twitter, Google and Whatsapp. That’s the world we are living in, and we need to be ready for that world.  My concern is that media owners and leaders, particularly in India, are so set in their historic legacy mindsets that they are unable to see the ground reality.

Social media is already making an impact and has become the source of content, but I do not believe that it is going to take over everything else. It is early days for social media as it is for any other form of digital enterprise. When disruption happens, things move to an extreme, and then over a period of time equilibrium is established.  We are far from that phase of equilibrium and balance.

Grooming Gen-Next

In the media industry, is there enough quality talent? Absolutely not! We don’t even have a program. At Star we have always focused on talent. We hire from the best places, but realise that is not enough. We have world class trainers and instructors with us through the year and are hiring talented creative youngsters from across the country. We give them a stipend for a year, and then they work with us. However, this has to be scaled up to a larger level.  Tech companies like Google and Facebook hire from engineering colleges, but the media industry needs talent not just for creativity, but also to handle the business and technology aspects. At Hotstar, in less than two years we probably hired more engineers than all the other media and entertainment companies in this country put together, because Hotstar is not just about content but also technology. Leadership and talent are the biggest challenges I see before Indian media in days ahead.

Quality of News Journalism

Every morning I spend an hour reading international and Indian newspapers, and admit that I don’t watch many news channels because of their being clichéd and noisy with no sense of direction. Indian news owners and editors need to be mindful of this. The business model of news has collapsed, leading to pressure on investment and distortions and compromises in monetisation. People are buying and selling news like a commodity, impacting the integrity and credibility of news. I am concerned about the trust deficit building between news organisations and consumers, viewers, readers or listeners. 

India is one of the few countries where people with very different commercial interests own news organisations. In this scenario, the temptation to use news to promote other interests is high.  It’s sad that traditional media organisations have succumbed to dodgy means for making money. Society, government, and most importantly the media community, need to come together to fix this. News is of value and importance so long as it has credibility.

Neutrality is a good ambition but also a utopian desire. You can have an opinion but cannot be committed to someone else’s opinion.  You have to ensure you represent both points of view in a fair manner. Today, news is being used to pursue a business, political or some non-journalistic agenda, a dangerous trend with media itself a willing partner.

 As a young journalist, my editor told me that editors should never be seen, ideally not be heard, and only be read sometimes. Today even print editors are seen on news channels. Everybody is obsessed with building their own profile. The owners themselves go and meet politicians and the commercial guys. The crisis of values and professional ethics playing havoc with news has society bearing the brunt.

Editors and newsrooms need to edit reporters and anchors. Segregation is needed to create codes of conduct for everybody. If anchors and editors hang out with political leaders and business tycoons, it is difficult for them to be totally objective. All the great editors that I met, and some of the owners that I have had the privilege of working with, never went to meet anybody. As an editor, I hardly met anyone. My reporters met them, and people in the newsroom and on the desk questioned a reporter’s input, as reporters sometimes run the risk of proximity.

Media Organisations as Agents of Social Change

When I was considering a journalistic career after JNU, I met a senior who was a journalist. He said, ‘If you want to be in media, you need to think about a few things. You have to be prepared to lead a life of poverty, not be able to own a car, and maybe never be able to buy a house.’ I said, ‘Really? Then why the hell would one want to be a journalist?’ He said because you will be able to do good things for people, and that made sense. So, the approach was that whatever you do, films or serials, making a positive impact on society is the nucleus of media. If you are not thinking about that, you are wasting your time and destroying media. Journalists were called ‘pompous’ because they would say, ‘we have to fix this and that’ but, I actually think that is a good thing because people had a larger calling. People thought they were contributing to a better society and making a difference to people’s lives. Today, I hold editors and some owners responsible for not focussing on the larger picture, but just being in the business to make money.

At Star, we are convinced that we will not do regressive content. We will do nothing that might get us ratings but is not good for society. Satyamev Jayate has been talked about a lot, but all our dramas always have a positive story line. Our channels appeal as we tell people about a better life, better tomorrow, not just in a physical sense but in a deep abstract sense. When we got into sports, we walked the talk. We are involved in a number of sports and will be starting a table tennis league.  We spend money but do not make money on sports, but do it as it’s good for society. We change lives, which is why kabaddi and football gives us so much joy and pride. Today, a kabaddi player in the PKL is a celebrity and earns well. That is the transformational power of media. Even in a singing or dancing reality show, we give contestants from small places a platform to showcase their talent. Media is not just about news, entertainment and movies, it is about impacting someone’s life, which is what we at Star believe. 

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